musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Christian Bach & Carl Friedrich Abel

[I] Johann Christian BACH (1735 - 1782): "A Music Party"

rec: Oct 11 - 14, 2010, Courtomer, Eglise Sainte Geneviève
Agogique - AGO003 (© 2011) (75'46")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list
Opus 22 - parts

Quintet in C, op.11,1 (Warb B 70)abdefg [4]; Quintet in F, op. 11,3 (Warb B 72)abdefg [4]; Quintet in D, op. 11,6 (Warb B 75)abdefg [4]; Quintet in D, op. 22,1 (Warb B 76)abdfg [5]; Quintet in F, op. 22,2 (Warb B 77)bdefg [5]; Sextet in C (Warb B 78)bcdfg;

Amélie Michel, transverse flutea; Héloïse Gaillard, oboeb; Lionel Renoux, Pierre-Yves Madeuf, hornc; David Plantier, violind; Fanny Paccoud, violae; Annabelle Luis, cellof; Violaine Cochard, harpsichordg

[II] Carl Friedrich ABEL (1723 - 1787): "Music for flute and strings"
Georgia Browne, transverse flute
Nordic Affect

rec: July 2009, Skálholt, Cathedral
Brilliant Classics - 94304 (© 2012) (72'56")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list
Opp. 3 & 7 - Parts

Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc No 2 in e minor (WKO 47)j; Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc No 5 in G (WKO 50)j; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in C, op. 6,1 (WKO 123)i [2]; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in e minor, op. 6,3 (WKO 125)i [2]; Sonata for transverse flute, violin and bc in G, op. 3,1 (WKO 80)hi [1]; Symphony in C, op. 7,1 (WKO 13)j [3]

Tuomo Suni, Halla Steinunn [solo h], violin; Gudrún Hrund Hardardóttir, viola; Hanna Loftsdóttir, cello; Benoit Vanden Bemden, violone; Karl Nyhlin, theorbo; Haru Kitamikai, Gudrún Óskarsdóttirj, harpsichord

Sources: Carl Friedrich Abel, [1] Six Sonatas, op. 3, 1761; [2] Sei Sonate, op. 6, 1765; [3] Six Simphonies, op. 7, 1767
Johann Christian Bach, [4] Six Quintettos, op. 11, 1774; [5] Deux quintetts, op. 22, 1785

Since the beginning of the 18th century London developed into one of the main music centres of Europe. This was reflected by the number of composers and performing musicians who immigrated into Britain or stayed there for a number of years. There were many possibilities to make a career as a performer or music teacher, and the best of them also presented themselves with compositions of their own. George Frideric Handel dominated the music scene from his arrival until his death in 1759. After that it was another German-born composer who took his place: Johann Christian Bach.

After some years in Italy which had a lasting influence on his development as a composer the youngest son of Johann Sebastian settled in London in 1762. Soon he became the most popular composer of operas. At the same time he performed as a keyboard player, both solo and in ensembles of various instruments. Performances took place at the royal court or in the homes of aristocrats and wealthy citizens. The increase in music making by amateurs was an incentive to composers to provide them with music. Many sonatas and other pieces were published, often featuring the then most fashionable instrument, the transverse flute. In order to increase sales composers often suggested alternatives, like the violin or the oboe.

Johann Christian Bach's oeuvre bears witness to this. He composed many sonatas or trios for keyboard and other instruments, and also some quartets and quintets which were then also published in arrangements for smaller scorings, for instance keyboard, violin and cello. The latter genre - the keyboard trio - quickly gained popularity in Bach's time. The disc by the ensemble Amarillis brings specimens from one genre: the quintet for various instruments, either with basso continuo or with an obbligato part for the keyboard. These were probably also played by Bach himself, together with colleagues, in public or private concerts. In her liner-notes Héloïse Gaillard mentions various virtuosos who could have played these pieces: the flautist Johann Baptist Wendling, the oboist Johann Christian Fischer and the violinist Wilhelm Cramer. They all stayed in London for some time, and it is certainly plausible to think that they have been involved in performances of at least some of the music on this disc. But it will be hard to prove that they did.

The Quintets op. 11 belong to the most popular pieces by Johann Christian Bach and are regularly performed and have been recorded a number of times. It is therefore rather surprising that Ms Gaillard asks why his music is so little known. It isn't as bad as she seems to think. She also claims that the second of the two Quintets op. 22 is recorded here for the first time. That is not correct: I know of at least one recording of both quintets, by the Berliner Barock-Compagney (Capriccio, 2005). In the 1990s the German label CPO even started a major project of recording music by Johann Christian Bach. It was mostly orchestral music which was recorded, and it did make little impact, mainly because the performances were not that great.

And that is what is the problem in convincing audiences that his music is really good: his music isn't always performed really well, and his music doesn't survive that. The more recent recordings of some orchestral music by the Freiburger Barockorchester speak much more in his favour. Fortunately the performances of Amarillis are also good, and make these quintets shine. They show the many qualities and the different ways Bach treats the various instruments and instrumental combinations. The playing is lively and full of contrasts, and the moments of expression don't pass by unnoticed. The Sextet in C is another quite popular piece, probably not in public performances but certainly on disc. That said, Amarillis once again provides a very fine performance which is up to any competition.

It is quite possible that some of the pieces Amarillis has recorded were played during the Bach-Abel concerts, one of the most successful subscription concert series in the 18th century. Many of the best players from England and from abroad participated in these concerts. The organization and musical direction was shared by Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel. When Bach arrived in London in 1762 Abel was already there - since 1756 - and had earned a reputation as a gamba virtuoso. They already knew each other: their fathers were colleagues in Köthen, and when his father died Abel was sent to Leipzig where he became part of the Bach household.

Abel didn't only play the gamba, but also the transverse flute; in a family portrait he appears holding a flute. This explains that pieces for or with flute take a considerable place in his oeuvre. Moreover, like I wrote above, there was such a strong demand of music for flute that composing for the instrument was extremely profitable. Georgia Brown has chosen various specimens of Abel's works for flute; the disc ends with one of his symphonies for strings.

In her liner-notes Ms Brown suggests the flute concertos were written in or around 1758; that would be shortly after Abel's departure from Dresden, where he worked as a member of the court orchestra. They were probably written for his own use. They are technically not too demanding, and that would suggest that they were written for the amateur market. They were never published during Abel's lifetime, though. As so many compositions of that time they contain a mixture of baroque elements and features of the modern style. Among the former are counterpoint and expression, especially in the slow movements. Among the modern elements are the frequent use of drum basses in the fast movements. The are also influences of the Mannheim school, both in the concertos and in the Symphony in C.

The sonatas are largely written in the galant idiom. The solo sonatas follow the fashionable pattern of three movements, beginning with a slow movement which is followed by two fast movements. The trio sonata ends with a menuet, one of the most popular dances of the second half of the 18th century.

Georgia Brown and Nordic Affect deliver spirited and lively performances, elegant but not without depth of expression when Abel asks for it. The slow movements of the concertos are good examples of the latter. In the fast movements the rhythmic pulse is perfectly exposed, with infectious drive. Abel is relatively well represented on disc; I would like to recommend various recordings of La Stagione Frankfurt for CPO. This disc by Nordic Affect is an ideal way to get to know Abel's oeuvre and will raise curiosity about the rest of his oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Nordic Affect

CD Reviews